Mission LISA Pathfinder will search for gravitational waves

Mission LISA Pathfinder will search for gravitational waves

The newest satellite is preparing to reach an altitude of 930,000 miles from Earth to test a new technique for detecting elusive ripples in space and time, known as gravitational waves.

Predicted 100 years ago by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, waves are caused by massive objects, such as black holes or neutron stars, moving rapidly in space.

The LISA Pathfinder satellite was launched Wednesday night from the Kourou cosmodrome in French Guiana. The satellite will use new technologies to detect gravitational waves, which so far escaped detection by ground-based observatories due to Earth's seismic noise — earthquakes, jolts, traffic and even the weather.

"The observatory will measure very small tidal flows that cannot be generated by objects such as the Moon, but only by very massive objects such as black holes," said William Weber, a LISA Pathfinder scientist from the University of Trento in Italy.

The satellite of the European Space Agency LISA Pathfinder contains two small cubes, placed at a distance of 15 inches from each other. Thus, they will not be exposed to anything other than gravitational forces. Using an accurate laser measuring system to measure the movement of cubes, scientists will be able to test the technologies that will be used in an improved space antenna using the principle of a laser interferometer, eLISA, formerly LISA. If successful, this method will open up a completely new branch of astronomy, which relies not on electromagnetic radiation, such as radio, infrared, optical and X-ray light, but on waves intertwined in the fabric of space and time itself.

Einstein suggested that gravity, like light, travels in waves. But while electromagnetic waves pass through space and time, gravitational waves bend space-time.

Einstein discovered gravitational waves in the course of a mathematical equation very early and he had his doubts that they would ever be measured. Not because they do not exist, but because as he said: "For all practical purposes, the effect is so weak that we can never see them."

“Even great minds can be wrong,” said Oliver Heinrich, a scientist at LISA Pathfinder. "If you look at very massive objects, gravitational waves can be measured."

It will take six weeks for LISA Pathfinder to go into orbit and another three months to prepare for the study. The main task itself will last about six months.

Although LISA Pathfinder is not designed to search for gravitational lenses, scientists expect the concept test to pave the way for eLISA, which will use three satellites, formed as a triangle, to search for gravitational waves. The launch of eLISA is planned in 2034.

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